The Gloaming at the National Concert Hall: ‘An experiment in controlled happenstance’

The Gloaming play literally 'in the gloaming'. The setting at their annual seven-day stint at the National Concert Hall in Dublin is dusk, afterlight…pure gloaming. And what they bring to this perfectly lit scene is a magical, fluid, take on Irish music that lifts the heart and soul.

The footage here from the last of their concerts there in March of this year, filmed for a special RTÉ broadcast, is breathless. From the moment vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird opens with the haunting ‘Fáinleog’ to the breakneck glorious delirium of the last fiddle rush on ‘Music In the Glen’, we have a beautifully original reading of Irish traditional music that is exhilarating, innovative, moving and heavenly.

'Fáinleog / The Old Favourite' —an excerpt from the live concert film, broadcast on RTÉ earlier this year.

The musical arrangements here have a shared sensibility with post-rock or jazz: a flowing of ideas and a marvellous intuition between the musicians, a seamless melding of tunes into other songs. It is musicianship at its finest and shows why their annual residencies at the NCH sell out immediately each year, and have done across 24 shows since their debut there in 2011.

This annual event almost feels like a ceremonial rite. Every year, every evening, the audiences gather in the dark waiting for the revelation. The format is the same —the performers do not change, the stage is stark and simple, the lighting beautifully understated to give that gloaming effect— but every musical performance is a unique reinterpretation.

The interaction between the five members of the band in performance, the glances and quiet words between songs, the wry smiles, seems to have drifted onto to the stage from the green room. Individually the band live in different countries —three Irish, two Americans— and coming together as The Gloaming means a lot of catching up, joking and intensive smart banter. There is an energy, a creative electric tension, that builds before the show which is finally released on stage.

Iarla Ó Lionáird. Photo credit: York Tillyer.

“Singing with The Gloaming is really pleasing for me,” says sean-nós singer Ó Lionáird, who was brought up in the Irish-speaking West Cork Gaeltacht. “There is something about the aesthetic unity of what we have managed to accidentally, in some ways, broadcast to each other and receive. It’s no lie to admit and say that it isn’t formulated in a way that people might expect.”

It’s almost like an experiment in controlled happenstance. The rhythms and arcs of melody and emotion— they just fall into each other like water mixing, and you can’t see the edges. It’s really beautiful to experience when you’re on stage. Iarla Ó Lionáird

“I experience it very powerfully when I’m working with Thomas on the piano. When you see little streams converge into each other, you just see this beautiful weaving of emotional intentionality and instinct. Because we are instinct machines when it comes to making music. We are made to experience those unfolding of beautiful accidents. I think we’re all made that way. We must be, because the audience feel it too. They love that lack of measurable architecture. They love the sense of flow. And I don’t think I’ve found it as profoundly or as deeply with any other thing I’ve done.”

Thomas Bartlett. Photo credit: York Tillyer

The American pianist Thomas Bartlett (otherwise known as Doveman) agrees, but on a slightly different setting. “I love doing this for the interaction with the guys in the band,” he says. “I have a hard time on stage, I have a hard time in front of audiences. I don’t like that feeling at all. The reason I perform is to interact with musicians where that’s essential to their nature. Martin would certainly be one of those people where the stage and an audience is where he’s at his best. So, to be fully able to collaborate with Martin I need to be ready to do this, and so that’s worth it, but I wish it could just happen in the studio.”

Martin Hayes. Photo credit: York Tillyer

Fiddler Martin Hayes from County Clare feels that the band has developed over the years to the point that things feel a bit more integrated on stage, “…and I think we’ve found the sound that makes sense to us,” he says. “When I’m playing some nights on stage I’m just sitting in the middle of this luxurious experience. I can’t imagine it any other way. It feels like the perfect vehicle for the tunes, or at least the way I imagined them and feel them.”

“You couldn’t but be surprised that something like this would actually be something that could play for seven nights in the national concert hall because generally traditional musicians felt they were in a little ghetto. And that communication was between ourselves and some hardcore fans. I look out at the audience and there are young people from all over the country, there are grandmothers, there are teenagers, there are children, there are the intellectual classes (for want of a better word) and there are regular working class people coming all the way from Limerick to hear it.”

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. Photo credit: York Tillyer.

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“It feels very intimate when you’re playing here,” agrees the band’s other astounding fiddle player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. “It feels like you can see people’s faces, you’re surrounded by the balcony on both sides and in front of you and we really feel at home, it feels like an intimate gig. It’s crazy to say that in a hall of 12,000 people but it does feel intimate, you do feel you connect, you feel the energy coming back from people, you hear they’re listening. It doesn’t quite feel the us and them situation and I think you make a choice— you either emphasise the gap between the stage and the audience or you try to break it down and that’s a personal choice and it depends where you choose to perform and how you choose to present the music but I think in this space it really makes sense to kind of include the audience a little more rather than try and distance yourself from them.”

Dennis Cahill. Photo credit: York Tillyer.

“We’re not there to show people what technically we can do,” says their subtly effective Chicagoan guitarist Dennis Cahill. “It’s looking for a mood and a feeling and a communication for the audience. Even if he (Iarla) is singing in Irish there’s a mood and a feeling in it and people like it because it makes them feel less alone, it makes them feel somebody else has felt this. It’s a very personal thing as opposed to being separated from it and that’s why I think people like live performances because you go out and you create a mood people can relate to and it’s a harder thing to do than just technique because you can kinda control technique but mood you can’t control. You have to really bare your soul to do it and it’s hard, it can be very difficult, but this band just turns the switches on, it just does. And that’s why it works.”

Iarla, Thomas, Martin, Caoimhín and Dennis spin pure gold in this breathtaking performance. The president of Ireland, and huge fan of the arts, Michael D. Higgins is there in person to appreciate them and Iarla enjoys telling the audience that during his first state visit to the UK in 2014 at an evening of musical celebration held at the Royal Albert Hall Higgins not only requested that The Gloaming should take part but specified what he wanted them to perform!

And so here we have it, a remarkable record of The Gloaming in full flow, complete with some fabulous photos of the evening by York Tillyer. The evening’s winding down was lubricated with a bottle or two of red wine and a drop or several of Midleton Very Rare Vintage Release Irish Whiskey, and, very much like The Gloaming’s music, ‘Aged to Perfection’…

The Gloaming will tour internationally again in 2019, with shows already announced at Carnegie Hall, NYC, the Theatre at the ACE Hotel, LA, and other venues across the US.

View upcoming live dates

Featured Release

  • Live at the NCH

    The Gloaming

    Released 02 March 2018

    Using the studio recordings only as points of departure, these performances —recorded at the venue which has become their home away from home— stretch out and roam in unexpected new directions, incorporating new tunes and rearranging old ones, filled with the excitement and delight of five master musicians coming together as one.

By Elfyn Griffith

Elfyn is a Bristol-based freelance music writer/reviewer who has written for a number of publications and websites over the years including Venue Magazine, 24/7, Bristol Live, and Bristol Evening Post in Bristol, Folk Roots, NME and other national titles.

Published on Wed, 22 August 18

Further reading

Dennis Cahill (1954 – 2022)

We were saddened to learn of the death of Dennis Cahill, guitarist in The Gloaming, on 20 June 2022.

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